Some singers are born with the voices of angels, some with voices like bags of gravel. Both, I’d say, are blessed in their own way. Take the haunting, unforgettable Blind Willie Johnson, the weirdo genius Captain Beefheart, and, of course, the inimitable Tom Waits, whose mercurial persona has expressed itself as a down-and-out lounge singer, junkshop bluesman, Tin Pan Alley raconteur, Broadway showman, and more. Each iteration seems to get grittier than the last as age weathers Waits’ sandpaper voice to a rougher and rougher cut.
Waits first emerged in 1973 with Closing Time, an album Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden described as “all-purpose lounge music… a style that evokes an aura of crushed cigarettes in seedy bars and Sinatra singing ‘One for My Baby.’” Though Waits is “more than a chip off the Randy Newman block,” Holden wrote, “he sounds like a boozier, earthier version of the same.” The description might cause some fans of Waits who discovered him ten years later with Swordfishtrombones to furrow their brows. Sure, we may always hear some Sinatra in his songwriting or delivery, but a Randy Newman-like lounge singer? A little hard to feature…. As Noel Murray notes at The Onion’s A.V. Club, “Swordfishtrombones has sounded more and more like a baseline for ‘normal’” in Waits’ oeuvre.
Although he has always drawn liberally from music of the past, in the 80s and 90s, he reached further back in time for his influences and instrumentation—into the back corners of early 20th-century outsider gospel and washtub blues, 19th-century sea shanties and murder ballads. For all his avant-garde bona fides—including his many collaborations with experimental guitarist Marc Ribot—few contemporary artists as Waits best exemplify the “old, weird America” Luc Sante describes as the “playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes.” Each of these at one time or another is a character Waits has played in song.
Waits’ old, weird Americana is wildly askew even for genres that prize the off-kilter. He went from making records that sound like Hollywood’s seediest corners to records that sound like drunk marching bands in machine shops. By 2004’s Real Gone, his voice modulated into a terrifying bark that commands attention and respect, yet still communicates with all the emotive power of the most angelic soprano.
You can hear Waits’ transition from ironic lovelorn crooner to demonic carnival barker—and a few dozen more old, weird American characters—in the 24-hour, 380-track Spotify playlist just above. It covers Waits’ entire career, from that first, 1973 album, Closing Time, and its follow-ups The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner, to Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Blood Money, and his last studio album, Bad as Me, “a fun reminder,” Murray writes, “of Waits’ ability to be a badass when necessary.” I’d say, if you’ve heard Waits’ deep, gravelly growl at any stage of his career, you’d hardly need reminding.